Literature of the Incarcerated

            Over the course of history in literature, some of the most excellent works have come from authors who found themselves behind bars. Something about incarceration seems to bring out the best poetic spirit in people with that sort of disposition. The experience of incarceration can, itself, have a huge impact on both a writer’s tone and the overall voice that he or she uses in literature. Works of the incarcerated are important because of not only the effect that they have on the writer, but also because of their ability to bring forth wide scale social change. The passion, tone, and message of many of these writers is strong enough that it can influence other individuals to undertake actions or change their thinking. In particular, Michael Foucault’s Discipline and Punish is one work where revolutionary ideas come forth as a result of incarceration. Foucault’s analysis of the history of the penal system is important because it takes into account the prevailing social themes that have always permeated the thinking of those that formed the modern penal system.

            Foucault’s work begins with a focus on punishment in its most basic form. Before there were prisons, penitentiaries, and other types of prisoner reform, punishment had a different purpose. Kings and queens were not at all concerned with turning the criminal into a better person, nor were they concerned with the possibility of having that person add something constructive to the society in the future. Instead, they sought to instill fear with their punishment. The entire idea behind 17th century punishment was to have a public viewing of something very painful, so that the rest of the society would take notice and choose not to break the law. Central in this was the desire of the people in power to protect the power that made them important. Without that security blanket of absolute power, leaders had to fear things like revolts and uprisings. That is why there were so many public displays of torture and punishment in the early times.

            Foucault speaks of the change that the penal system experienced in his book. During the 18th century, people were much less inclined to like public torture sessions and they started to re-think the way people were being punished. In his work, Foucault writes, “Among so many changes, I shall consider one: the disappearance of torture as a public spectacle. Today we are rather inclined to ignore it; perhaps, in its time, it gave rise to too much inflated rhetoric; perhaps it has been attributed too readily and too emphatically to a process of “humanization”, thus dispensing with the need for further analysis. And, in any case, how important is such a change, when compared with the great institutional transformations, the formulation of explicit, general codes and unified rules of procedure; with the almost universal adoption of the jury system, the definition of the essentially corrective character of the penalty and the tendency, which has become increasingly marked since the nineteenth century, to adapt punishment to the individual offender?” (Foucault, I). This quotation deals with the overriding idea of the establishment. Punishment, during that time, was something that was done by the institution. In order for radical change to take place, there needed to be both widespread desire for a new system and an element of disgust at what had been going on. The book focuses on the fact that the system of torture went away in a flash. It was not a long, drawn out process where individuals discussed and debated new ideas for how to handle criminals. It was simple decided, over the course of a few short years, that people no longer demanded this sort of punishment, nor was there a social need for public punishment in order to instill fear into the population.

            The book makes primary contentions about the effectiveness of both early and modern justice systems on rehabilitating the prisoner. As mentioned before, the focus in early France was not to help the prisoner become a better person, it was simply to eliminate that person as a threat to society. It is unclear when the fundamental shift in thinking occurred that made people start wanting to help criminals instead of putting them away for good. Whatever the case, the development of the modern prison system, as indicated in the book, had a much keener sense of what it took to help a prisoner develop into a better person. Foucault himself became very disenchanted with the entirety of the prison system. Although he was never a long time resident of the prison system in a traditional sense, he did spend a great deal of time in study of the various ways that prisoners were dealt with in more than one culture. It is clear, even in the beginning of the work, that his educational experience had a profound impact on his message. His opening passage depicts one of the most brutal scenes in all of literature – a man being quartered as punishment for the attempted murder of the French king. Foucault did not include this by accident, either. In his studies of the French penal system, he understood this to be not only the prevailing way to handle criminals, but also a sign of the changing times that occurred, almost instantly, within penal system thinking.

            Foucault became something of a prison insider, even though he was not a prisoner per say. He opened himself up to the dark, subversive world of the penal system and it had a profound impact on his writing. In many of the author’s previous works, he speaks with a different tone and a different voice. In this work, he is darker and he spends he is more cynical. His knowledge of the prison system causes him some problems in that he tends speak with more of an insider’s tone. It can be said that in his writing of important prison literature, Foucault undergoes a serious change in his artistic identity. Suddenly, he is much darker and much deeper. Though all of his works show off a philosophical side, this particular book takes that to a new level.

            The most important aspect of this incarceration literature is that it both chronicles widespread social change and it hopes to spark such change in its readers. The idea behind the book was not only to give readers more knowledge and a new perspective on the detailed history of the modern penal system, but it was also to make those readers think. The author hopes that, when reading the book, his audience will put themselves in the shoes of those people who have committed a crime. That is why his writing tone is a little bit different in this book. Instead of being straight forward and information-driven like he is in a lot of other works, Foucault is more convoluted in this work. He ends many sentences with question marks, hoping to spark internal monologue in his readers. While many books do not seem to know nor understand their place in the context of social significance, this is one work that clearly gets this fact. The writer seems to understand that when working with such important, deep material, he has the ability to read his audience and make them both question the current way that things are done and make them understand what it might be like to sit in a prison cell. This is a very important part of the work that the author obviously takes very seriously.

            Foucault goes on to study, at length, many other prison-related themes. While his book starts with the bloody, primitive justice employed by the French rules of the 17th century, it continues to break down the prison system and what brought about those social changes in thinking. Early prison systems were marked by their control. There was little room for people to operate without being watched, supervised, and having notes taken on them. When the readership of the book thinks about prison, this is the type of environment they obviously would conjure up. Foucault did much research and his work he sought to give a clear and accurate depiction of what things were like in the early prisons. That, according to the author’s work and his focus, is the only way to give his readers an opportunity to produce the kind of new thought that will provoke social change. In his book, Foucault writes of one early prison, “This surveillance is based on a system of permanent registration: reports from the syndics to the intendants, from the intendants to the magistrates or mayor At the beginning of the ‘lock up’, the role of each of the inhabitants present in the town is laid down, one by one; this document bears ‘the name, age, sex of everyone, notwithstanding his condition’: a copy is sent to the intendant of the quarter, another to the office of the town hall, another to enable the syndic to make his daily roll call. Everything that may be observed during the course of the visits – deaths, illnesses, complaints, irregularities is noted down and transmitted to the intendants and magistrates” (Foucault, III). In this, the reader gets the clear picture of everything that went on. Since it was still early on in the process, people were still not exactly sure what to do with inmates, since there was a measure of fear associated with them. Having complete control was one way to make sure that the society stayed safe.

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            A prisoner’s perspective of the situation is something that can be very helpful in shaping a person’s view and enacting social change on the broad level. The Jonas Hanway book, Solitude in Imprisonment, is a great example of this. Hanway is particularly critical of how the outside world views the prisoners that are in his prison. In his book, he writes, “Turned into the world, as they generally are, how will these poor creatures live, but by the fame crimes which brought them to the punishment of a filthy, undignified, temporary imprisonment?” (Hanway). In this, the audience can see the clear sarcasm in the voice of the writer, and in this, one might note the change that prison has brought in this particular writer. It has hardened him and made him into a sarcastic, cynical writer. His point of view is slanted against those people who he feels have little understanding of what goes on the in the prison system.

            This interesting view from within the prison system is especially important along with the context provided by Foucault in his history of the penal system. Writers who have the knowledge, either first hand or learned, of the prison system, have the ability to reach out and touch large numbers of folks who do not have a similar knowledge of the system. This balance is extremely important, as anyone who wants to gain a full understanding of what prisoners go through must first be able to understand both the history and the “down and dirty” details. Prison itself is a difficult place where men are sharpened into hard tools. Some men become philosophical when learning of prison and their writing reflects that. Others, like Jonas Hanway, become very cynical and they tend to let that flow in their writing. This is proof positive that prison has a way of effecting each man in its own particular, profound way.

Works Cited

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish. 1975.

Hanway, Jonas. Solitude in Imprisonment. 1776. J. Bew.

Roberts, Andrew (1981). Table of Statutes. The asylums index. Middlesex University, London, England.

 

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